Just hours after Arlene Foster insisted that there was “no problem at all” within the DUP about her leadership, Ian Paisley last night said that she “has to answer some very tough questions”.
Speaking publicly for the first time since Friday, Mrs Foster stood alongside her deputy leader Nigel Dodds at Stormont to dismiss what DUP sources have been telling journalists about disquiet within the party about the election result.
Mrs Foster said: “There is no revolt.
“I’ve had a very good meeting today with my party officers. I’ll meet with my full Assembly team tomorrow morning and talk to a lot of my other colleagues as well.
“So there’s no problem, no problem at all.”
But last night Mr Paisley spoke candidly about the situation facing the party as it enters major talks with Sinn Fein.
In an interview with Sky News, the North Antrim MP said that there was a need for “humble pie being served up and being eaten”.
When asked about the calls for Mrs Foster to stand aside from the post of First Minister in any future Executive while the RHI public inquiry is ongoing, he said: “It’s probably not helped by the fact that everyone’s telling her what to do and really our leader has to take that decision herself and she’ll take whatever decision with the support of the party and we’ll create that circumstance.
“Jabbing at a unionist never really works because they go into siege mentality.
“We do need, however, a new diplomacy, a new skill set among our politicians. We are in a very, very different place than we were 20, 40 years ago as a people.
“We need that new skill to recognise that we have to talk to each other very, very differently and work with each other very differently.”
Mr Paisley went on to say that “for unionists, there’s a huge challenge in this”. He said that unionists need to address the fact that there is no longer a unionist majority within the Stormont chamber, even though Mr Paisley said that there had been a unionist majority in terms of votes, with 58% of votes cast for unionist parties.
For that reason, he said “I still think that in a border poll we would win it and win it hands down. But that’s not the point. We want to avoid that type of calamity and that type of crisis and the best way to do that is for political leaders to demonstrate that they have the skill, the competency and the ability to cooperate and to work with each other – my father and Martin McGuinness got over far worse.”
Pointing to how his father and Mr McGuinness – who he described as “enemies” – had “healed” their relationship, Mr Paisley said that he believed a new generation of politician should be far more capable of moving beyond the Troubles’ era problems.
He then went on to say: “But it takes perhaps a bit of humble pie being served up and being eaten and it takes humility and a bit of work.”
When it was put to him that it was perhaps time for a new generation of the Paisley family to step forwards for the leadership, Mr Paisley insisted that it was “not my interest”.
He said that Northern Ireland was now in a crisis “which could have been avoided”.
And, when asked if Mrs Foster had the unanimous support of the DUP’s MLAs, Mr Paisley said: “Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer. There have been reports that people have been saying that we have concerns here.
“I think Arlene has genuinely support and a strong support base. But she also has to answer some very tough questions. And that’s on behalf of all of us.
“We all have to look very closely at the performance of our party, at the performance of unionism and realise that tough questions have got to be asked and therefore difficult answers given and importantly then look and see can we achieve unionist unity with other parties.
“Otherwise, we are back in that bunker and it’s the worst place for us to be.”
This morning the DUP’s MLAs will meet as a group for the first time since the election.
That Stormont meeting is expected to discuss not only Mrs Foster’s future, the outcome oft he election and the talks with Sinn Fein, but also to focus on internal anger at the role of some Spads.
The News Letter yesterday reported about growing internal disquiet about the position of Timothy Johnston, the key DUP adviser for more than a decade who is seen as the power behind the throne within the party.
After yesterday’s report, two DUP sources contacted the News Letter to express their unease about Mr Johnston’s role within the recent election campaign and the advice which he has been giving Mrs Foster in recent times.
One of the elected members said that they were seriously alarmed at Mr Johnston’s power and influence within the party but felt that there was no point even raising the issue internally due to his status.
The News Letter contacted Mr Johnston on Sunday but he had not responded.
Meanwhile, the Assembly has confirmed that it will sit for the first time – largely to allow MLAs to formally sign the register as members – next Monday at 4pm. Nominations for First Minister and deputy First Minister will then follow on 27 March.